Antarctic cruise ship races to rescue solo sailor

The crew of an Antarctic cruise ship steaming to the assistance of a French sailor adrift on the Southern Ocean in a life raft were preparing Sunday for a dramatic and delicate rescue operation in giant waves.

Photo provided on December 28, 2010 by Rolex shows a yacht ploughing through the heavy seas of the Bass Strait off the coast of Tasmania.

Alain Delord was attempting to sail solo and without assistance around the world when his yacht, Tchouk Tchouk Nougat, was damaged in rough weather off southern Australia's Tasmania island on Friday.

The Frenchman was forced to abandon ship and has been adrift in a life raft on the Southern Ocean for more than three days.

Authorities were first alerted to his plight by a colleague on Friday morning and Delord activated his emergency beacon later that afternoon.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority dropped him food, water, communications equipment and a survival suit on Saturday and diverted an Antarctic cruise ship, the PV Orion, to go to his rescue.

The Orion expects to arrive at Delord's location, some 500 nautical miles from Tasmania, on Sunday evening when they will have to find the Frenchman in high winds and waves of up to seven metres (23 feet).

"I don't want to underestimate the difficulty of the task for the PV Orion -- his cruise vessel is not designed for search and rescue," an AMSA spokeswoman told ABC Radio.

"It will be difficult for him to put down his own life raft and collect the sailor."

Don McIntyre, expedition leader on board the Orion, said the crew was expecting the rescue to be tough with "30-knot winds gusting to 40 knots and the seas will probably be around seven metres".

The Orion's captain Mike Taylor said finding Delord would be his first challenge.

"A life raft is harder to see -- it's a very big ocean out there," Taylor told Fairfax newspapers.

"Providing we can locate him, and that's a very big if, the plan is to launch a Zodiac (inflatable boat)... tethering the (Zodiac and life raft) together and pulling him into the Zodiac."

If the weather is too rough to launch a dinghy Taylor said the other option was to approach Delord's life raft from the windward side and "kind of slowly drift down onto him".

"And then it would be a case of getting a heaving line over to him, hook him up to our pulley and then just sort of drag him back to the ship," he said.

Taylor said Delord was "probably not going to be walking" after three days in a life raft but the fact he had been able to collect the supplies dropped to him by air indicated he was "probably pretty agile and tough".

"It must have been a hell of a job to launch the raft in the kind of conditions he faced earlier on, so my assumption is he is going to be in a traumatised state," he said.

"If necessary we can use a rope and a pulley to haul him up to the door and in."

The Orion was 11 days into an 18-day passenger cruise of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic when it was drafted into the rescue. It was the only ship within 100 nautical miles to respond to AMSA's distress call.

AMSA said it had stayed in regular contact with Delord throughout Saturday night, with three commercial aircraft involved in the operation including two with French interpreters on board.

Delord, an experienced yachtsman, has been at sea since October last year and was reportedly following the route of the Vendee Globe round-the-world ocean race.

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